Have you noticed?
Scripture is replete with positive examples of characters from outside normed paths and accepted methods who arrive on the scene and bring refreshing insights and new freedoms.
These characters help us increase in wisdom. These inbreakings into our routines aid us in becoming better people if we hearken to them and follow their examples.
The prophets are classic examples of the above. The prophets were consistently seen as oddities of God; often respected oddities, but oddities nonetheless. People lived in awe of them, were irritated by them, allowed themselves to be led by them, but certainly did not plan to live like them or follow their paths.
Melchizedek is another example. He is a priest of unknown lineage. Yet, Abraham honors him as his greater.
Jethro is a priest of Midian that worshipped different gods until he later acknowledged the supremacy of Yahweh. Jethro becomes Moses’ father-in-law, teaches Moses many new ways, is deeply respected by Moses, and is rabbinically accorded the title of being a Gentile prophet.
Ruth the Moabite (that is, not an Israelite) has a book of Scripture named after her and is listed in the genealogy of Jesus.
Rahab, non-Jewish and in prostitution, fosters the saving of herself and her family through aiding the Hebrews and is further honored by becoming part of the named lineage of Jesus. Zaccheus the tax collector is lauded for his humble change of heart resulting in new justice-oriented actions. The list of unanticipated and unexpectedly honored characters continues: the woman with an issue of blood; the one healed of leprosy who returned; the woman who begged for crumbs from Jesus’ table; the woman at the well who becomes an evangelist telling of Jesus; the women at the tomb who become the first evangelists telling of Jesus’ resurrection; David the shepherd who became king; Saul the Murderer who becomes Paul the Apostle; the widow of Zarephath; the Good Samaritan; Mary, mother of God; and so many more.
Jesus Himself is an example of this phenomenon of Scripture that turns conventional wisdom on its head…born as a frail baby (rather than other more preferred, august possibilities) in a backwater country, as part of a backwater region called Galilee, and part of a backwater town called Nazareth.
Considering the season of the birth of Jesus into which we are moving there is a set of characters yet to be mentioned that I would like to highlight.
John Milton, in his poem Hymn on the Nativity, writes, “see how from far upon the eastern road, the star led wizards haste with odours sweet.” Milton is here referring to the Magi, to the Wise Men. General scholarship has concluded that the Magi were likely Zoroastrian priests from Persia. So, here again are characters from off the proverbial beaten path catapulted to center stage in the blink of an eye – or in this case, the turn of a page.
This issue of The Cry takes as its theme Word Made Flesh’s Lifestyle Celebration of Obedience and I want to focus on this aspect in relation to the Magi (and by connection, to all the previous characters noted above).
In the narrative surrounding Christ’s birth, unlike the ruler Herod who tries to control everyone via external motivation (pressure of standing armies, threat of imprisonment, killings, etc.) the Magi are portrayed as being internally motivated. They listen to their hearts. They risk following their best inclinations into the great unknown because of an internal sense of import that they felt they must personally choose to follow in spite of external difficulties. A star does play an external role, but even still it is internal symbolic understanding which motivates.
Because of honest, humble obedience to the internal compass that we all have inside of us – our conscience, God the Holy Spirit’s guidance – three pagan priests are given the privilege of being among the first to bear witness to and celebrate the birth of God into the world. Once again, God showcases that all are welcome; God shows that none are beyond redemptive Grace if they, like the Israelites, only so choose to “humble themselves and pray and seek [God’s] face and turn from their wicked ways…” (see 2 Ch. 7).
All bear possibility of being grafted to the vine; all are welcome as long as they continue to choose to participate in God’s kindness (Ro. 11). All by grace…yes and amen! Yet still we have to grapple with: James’ faith without works is dead; Christ’s “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Matthew’s “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” and correspondingly, when not so done, God notes that God is neglected.
Like the Magi (all foreigners…ritually unclean from beyond the margins), may we seek to be obedient to our internal inclinations that we sense are leading us to God. May we do the good that we know to do. May we seek to be like Christ, obedient even to death on a cross so that we too might encounter our own “therefore” that follows from such compassionate choice – the gift of eternal presence with God. (Philippians 2)
There remains as always, “God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness…” (Ro. 11:22)
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling [or, “in awe and wonder”]” (Philippians 2:12)
It is not normed, expected, often burdensome, and externally motivated obedience that, at deepest, Scripture extols to us. Rather, it is primarily un-normed, internally motivated obedience that arrives unexpectedly from the margins like a breath of fresh air, like a drink of water in a dry and thirsty land to which Scripture guides us.
I pray that this issue of The Cry focusing on WMF’s Lifestyle Celebration of Obedience encourages you to further notice people like Christ did. I hope that it will encourage you to look for wisdom in places that Christ looked. Learn from those typically considered to be on the margins. Consider things that are often thought foolish and or weak. Let little children lead you. Recognize once again that it was a child born in a manger that has changed and still is changing everything. Find your freedom in obedience to the One who offers Freedom for all.
Executive Director of Word Made Flesh